Books for the Blind

Illustration of a printing press with the text "Printing Press for the Blind"

Illustration of a printing press, with the inscription "Howe Memorial Press", that was used to advocate for the Printing Fund for the Blind in 1881.

Educators called for reading and writing systems for people who are blind as early as the 16th century. Some individuals experimented with pinpricked alphabets and string glued to paper, but both methods were laborious and time-consuming.

It wasn’t until 1786 that Valentin Haüy, founder of the world’s first school for the blind in Paris, devised a printing system that could be read with the fingertips. Haüy used ordinary printing type, cast in reverse, pressing it against the back of the paper to create embossed Roman letters. The system was improved in 1816 by Haüy’s successor at the Paris school, Sébastien Guillié, who devised a more open design of the round-hand type. While Haüy had used a copperplate press, Guillié used a common printing press with two people pulling on the bar to create the additional pressure needed to emboss paper.

The beginnings of braille

Louis Braille, a 15-year-old student at the Paris school for the blind, developed the braille system in 1824. For the tactile reader, dots were much easier to discern than other raised letter types. During the next several years, Braille refined the system and added a notation for music. He published a book outlining his dot system in 1829, the same year that Perkins was incorporated. Braille’s proposal received little attention, however, and there is no evidence that Howe knew anything about it.

In 1832, the Royal Scottish Society for the Arts announced a competition for the "best alphabet and method of printing" for the blind. It was the first of several such competitions during the 19th century, and popular response was strong; competitors included people who were blind and sighted from all walks of life. The entries represented the three major types of raised print systems for readers who are blind: Roman letters, dots, and "arbitrary" characters (symbols arbitrarily assigned to represent letters). The Royal Scottish Society for the Arts prize went to type founder Edmund Fry. His system, like the winning systems in most of these competitions, was based on Roman letters. The judges believed these raised alphabet systems were superior to dot or symbol systems because both blind and sighted individuals could read them; additionally, they did not require teachers to learn a new system. The judges, who most often were sighted, gave little consideration to the ease with which the system could be read tactilely.

Printing tactile books efficiently and economically called for some innovation. Jacob Snider, of the Pennsylvania Institute for the Instruction of the Blind, produced the first raised-print book in the United States in 1833. Snider engraved the text on copper plates in a round hand similar to handwriting, then pressed the plates against the front of the page. Although this method produced clean letters of even depth, with a smooth surrounding paper surface, it was quickly abandoned. Later books printed in the United States were produced in the conventional European method, by stamping type into the paper from the back.

Boston Line Type

Samuel Gridley Howe, director of Perkins School for the Blind, developed an embossed alphabet called Boston Line Type in 1835. Because it was compact and had few confusing flourishes, he considered it vastly superior to the fonts used in Europe and at the Pennsylvania Institute. Howe commissioned a printer, Stephen Preston Ruggles, to design a press that could produce Boston Line Type books. Ruggles’ press produced books until 1881, when it was replaced with a more efficient design.

Raised alphabets did not offer a practical writing system for people who were blind. They were also extremely difficult to read tactilely, and many students in the 19th century were unable to master them. Gradually, more schools in Europe began adopting Louis Braille’s dot system. In 1860, Dr. Simon Pollak brought braille to the Missouri School for the Blind after observing its use in European schools. At about the same time, William Bell Wait, Superintendent of the New York Institution for the Blind, decided to completely abandon raised print. He tried, unsuccessfully, to persuade his colleagues in Boston and Philadelphia to adopt the braille system being used in Missouri and Europe.

New York Point 

When he was unable to persuade other American educators to adopt braille, Wait set out to develop a new, superior dot system. In his opinion, the braille system was wasteful, with each cell taking the same amount of space on the page regardless of the number of dots it contains. Wait’s New York Point used a horizontally oriented dot system with a variable base that was more compact than braille. However, the method used to indicate capitals and some punctuation was cumbersome and therefore not often used by publishers. The result was that New York Point text was not a true transcription of the original text.

Wait’s New York Point offered a system that could be both read and written by students who were blind. In spite of its frequent lack of capitals and punctuation, it was hailed as an improvement over raised alphabets. In 1871, educators at the meeting of the American Association of Instructors of the Blind (AAIB) endorsed it and recommended it for use in schools for the blind in the United States.

Modified (American) Braille

Although the official reading system at Perkins was Boston Line Type, many of the school’s students found it difficult to read, and without expensive and cumbersome equipment, it was impossible to use as a writing system. Joel W. Smith, a Perkins piano tuning teacher who was blind, created yet another alternative to embossed alphabets, called Modified or American braille. He was convinced that the best system would use raised dots, but found flaws in both New York Point and Louis Braille’s design. He considered braille faster and easier to read, but believed that reassigning the characters would make it even more efficient, both for reading and writing.

He assigned the characters having the fewest dots to the letters recurring with the highest frequency in the English language. To keep down the bulkiness of embossed books, he evolved a set of word contractions, assigning characters to them on the same frequency of recurrence principle. Perkins students embraced the system immediately, using it for class notes and correspondence with one another. Smith presented Modified braille to the American Association of Instructors of the Blind (AAIB) in 1878. But having already endorsed New York Point in 1871, the teachers’ association rejected the new system.

Because New York Point texts often omitted capitals, apostrophes and hyphens, teachers and readers became increasingly dissatisfied with the writing system. In 1892, at the meeting of the AAIB, a group of superintendents of schools for the blind discussed choosing a braille system for use in their schools. Committee members included Joel Smith and Edward Allen, then the director of the Philadelphia school. Allen, a former teacher at Perkins, was familiar with Smith’s Modified braille and helped persuade six of the seven school supervisors to select it. Later the name was changed to American braille.

Competing systems

Frank H. Hall, superintendent of the Illinois School for the Blind, invented a portable personal braille writer, which he introduced at the 1892 meeting of AAIB. The first such machine to be designed like a typewriter, the Hall braille writer greatly improved the speed of writing. Other innovators soon developed similar devices to produce braille and New York Point. In 1893, the capacity for producing books increased greatly with the development of a powerful braille stereotype maker. This machine created a printing plate with an entire page of braille embossed on it, eliminating the need to set individual letters on each page by hand. The braille stereotype was mounted between the pressure plates on a printing press, covered with thick paper and a layer of rubber, and squeezed together under great pressure. Many schools, including Perkins, began producing American braille using this method.

Among the teachers of people who were blind, there were advocates of New York Point, Modified braille, English braille and embossed alphabets. The disagreement escalated into a feud that continued for years. Professionals in the field often stubbornly adhered to a favored system. Because books were sometimes available only in one format, many students, including Helen Keller, were compelled to learn several different codes. At one time the American Printing House for the Blind (APH), the official book publisher, published in Boston Line Type, Modified braille and New York Point.

In a frequently quoted letter to the 1905 convention of the American Association of Workers for the Blind, Charles W. Holmes, president of the Perkins Alumni Association, pleaded for the adoption of a uniform code.

"In order to avail himself of the full range of literature (which at best is woefully limited) the blind reader must learn, and keep well up in, all these codes" he wrote. "How long would our seeing friends stand for such a state of affairs in ink type? Imagine for a moment the ridiculous situation that would arise, if the daily papers published in Boston had an entirely different system of characters from those used by New York publishers, and that a Philadelphia man could not read either without special training, because his own city had adopted a third, as unlike the others as the Chinese characters are unlike the Roman."

In spite of Holmes’s eloquent advocacy, it took great effort and many years for the universal code to become a reality.

Adopting a single code

The Uniform Type Committee, formed in 1905, agreed that there should be a single uniform code for all English-speaking readers, and that the embossed alphabets should be discontinued. The committee devised a legibility test and discovered that British braille was superior to Modified braille and New York Point.

The simplest solution would have been to recommend the adoption of British braille in the United States, but many disliked British braille because it had too many contractions. Instead, in 1913, the Uniform Type Committee presented yet another system named "Standard Dot," which attempted to combine the advantages of all three systems: Modified braille, British braille, and New York Point. The British, however, refused to undergo the expense and disruption of imposing yet another code, having done so only a few years earlier during the 1905 revision of British braille. "Standard Dot" was abandoned by the Uniform Type Committee.

The American Commission on Uniform Type next proposed adopting British braille Grade 2 with many simplifications and modifications. This proposal also was rejected by the British National Uniform Type Committee. The U.S. Commission decided to adopt its own recommendations, calling the new reading system Grade 1 braille. Readable by both U.S. and British readers, Grade 1 was as close to a uniform code as international divisions would permit.

In 1932, an official committee of three traveled to England with the charge of agreeing upon a uniform code. In the Treaty of London, the adoption of Grade 2 was agreed upon. The Library of Congress adopted Grade 2 immediately, and it was in use for 80 years. However, a few differences still remained and negotiations continued. English-speaking braille readers throughout the world continued to hope for a truly uniform braille code. In 1991 Dr. T. V. Cranmer and Dr. Abraham Nemeth began a campaign to further standardize English braille. A motion to adopt Unified English Braille (UEB) was passed by the Braille Authority of North America on November 2, 2012. The changes will be officially implemented in the United States on January 4, 2016.

Stephen Preston Ruggles

The following passage about Stephen Preston Ruggles was written by Anna Gardner Fish and appeared on pages 3 and 8 of the December 15, 1936 issue of The Lantern.

It was a new field of endeavor into which Dr. Howe ventured when he opened his school for the blind in 1832; for a hasty tour of inspection of institutions of the kind in Europe, previously made, had yielded more points of departure than features to be incorporated in his new undertaking. Untried methods and knotty problems must have confronted him at every turn, and his own ingenuity must have been sorely taxed in meeting them.

How fortunate indeed was he to find at his right hand a helper of understanding mind, of inventive skill and of mechanical knowledge and precision. This man was Stephen Preston Ruggles, whose labors for Dr. Howe and on behalf of the blind were of inestimable value, giving the needed start in appliances for that day and paving the way for modern devices of the present time. He, it was, who built the first printing press for this school, in 1835, from his own design, and two years later he manufactured a similar one for the school for the blind in Philadelphia. In this latter year (1837) he made the big globe which is one of our unique and priceless possessions and which, in its prominent position in the lobby, meets the eye of everyone who steps within the portals of the Howe Building.

This globe, so far as can be ascertained the only one of its kind in the world, was made by Mr. Ruggles with an exactitude which calls forth admiration. It is 13 feet in circumference and is composed of 700 cross pieces of wood, so arranged that the only effect of contraction would be to flatten the poles. Its wooden horizon bears the signs of the Zodiac, and there are movable meridian lines which may be used in connection with astronomical facts. Its proportions are true and accurate, and its general outlines, in spite of a shifting world, are still dependable. Mr. Ruggles’ work in furtherance of the education of the blind was not limited to these major achievements but covered a wide field of lesser accessories which have nonetheless helped to make smooth the paths of both the teachers and the taught. Dr. Howe, in his seventh report of the school (1838) gave credit to Mr. Ruggles for his zeal, interest and ability.

An excellent oil portrait of Mr. Ruggles hangs in the historic museum, the gift of his grandniece, Mrs. A. F. Batchelder of Lancaster, New Hampshire, in 1929. It portrays a genial countenance, with fine features, keen eyes and intent gaze. It is well that the memory of this valuable assistant to Perkins Institution should be preserved for us in so vivid and pleasing a manner.

Suggested citation for scholars

McGinnity, B.L., Seymour-Ford, J. and Andries, K.J. (2004) Books for the Blind. Perkins History Museum, Perkins School for the Blind, Watertown, MA.

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